Successful first half marred slightly by Duluth sweep

Minnesota began the year with nine straight and was still unbeaten after 14 games

Brett Angel

Minnesota women’s hockey players skated slowly toward the bench after concluding Tuesday’s practice with a series of grueling ladder workouts and skating drills.

Several braced themselves on the boards while a few sat down on the bench in exhaustion.

“That was the toughest practice of the season,” senior defender and alternate captain Winny Brodt said as she grabbed a green Gatorade bottle and squirted water through her face mask.

After finishing the best first half in team history with a weekend sweep of Minnesota State-Mankato and a 15-2-1 record (9-2-1 WCHA), you might expect head coach Laura Halldorson to take it easy on her team. You’d be wrong.

“In terms of our record, I’m very pleased with where we are,” Halldorson said. “But one of my philosophies is to never be satisfied. I want us to keep getting better.”

Despite their physical condition Tuesday afternoon, the Gophers have a lot to feel good about heading into their month-long holiday break.

Minnesota began the year with nine straight victories, and after 14 games, the team remained unbeaten. The Gophers beat four nationally-ranked teams in the month of November alone.

The team has also witnessed firsthand the emergence, well, more like the explosion of some of the best young talent in the country.

Freshman standouts and former Olympians Krissy Wendell and Natalie Darwitz have garnered a total of eight conference awards between them. The WCHA plaques are being sent so frequently that they’re piling up in the team’s media relations office. Wendell and Darwitz rank in the nation’s top four in scoring, goals and assists.

Sophomore goalie Jody Horak has developed into one of the best goalies in the country, boasting a .936 save percentage and 1.54 GAA. Horak has started 14 of the Gophers’ 18 games and appears to have beaten out teammate Brenda Reinen for the team’s starting spot.

But for all the positive things that happened in the first half of the season, the players will remember those things that didn’t go their way.

Minnesota was unable to earn a point in its two-game series against two-time defending national champion Minnesota-Duluth, which was the first team to leave Ridder Arena with a ‘W.’

“The whole UMD series put a lot of things into perspective for our team,” Brodt said. “We learned a lot, and because of that series, we’re going to be a better team in the end.”

The Gophers did come back with two victories last weekend to end their December schedule on a winning note but looked tired and uninspired throughout much of the series against last-place Minnesota State-Mankato.

“We have a lot to work on, and it showed on the ice,” sophomore forward Kelly Stephens said.

Senior captain Ronda Curtin emphasized defense and teamwork as areas where the Gophers need improvement.

Halldorson blames a tough November schedule and some long traveling weekends for Minnesota’s minor letdown but remains confident in her team’s ability to continue its success after the break and into the postseason.

“I’m not against having bumps in the road,” Halldorson said. “Sometimes when it’s too easy and you’re coasting, you don’t go through the challenges and the obstacles that can really help a team in the end.”

Halldorson’s point is perfectly illustrated by what happened to Minnesota three years ago.

December of 1999 was the last time the Gophers were swept at home. Those two losses (like the two against Minnesota-Duluth this year) also came in the first weekend of December at the hands of the Bulldogs.

That Gophers team finished the first semester with five losses – the most in program history. Perhaps it’s just coincidence that that team also went on to win the only national championship in Minnesota women’s hockey history.

“Sometimes it’s a blessing in disguise when you can’t beat a team,” said Brodt, who played on that 2000 national championship team. “When it comes down to it, I’d rather win the big game than these games that don’t mean as much.”

Brett Angel covers women’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]